The strangest thing about the coronavirus is that we can’t help one another through it. We can’t lay on hands, we can only wash them: in fact, the way we’ve been explicitly told to help is to stay away from one another. That makes epidemiological sense, but it also makes us a little crazy: social distancing, quarantine, and isolation go hard against the gregarious instinct that makes us who we are.
Every other time that we face a natural disaster, we come together: that’s the natural, almost inevitable human response to a crisis. Rebecca Solnit, in her soaringly optimistic book from 2009, “A Paradise Built in Hell,”
proved that point with example after example: from the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina, people rallied in the most extraordinary ways. In Louisiana, people with boats just kept arriving and shoving off into the murky and dangerous waters to rescue people stranded on the roofs of their flooded homes. The Cajun Navy, as the group of volunteer boaters was known, saved lives by the score, and they were not an exception.
“In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones,” Solnit writes. Looters are rare—and sometimes what’s called looting is just people trying to get medicine or food for others. She adds, “The image of the selfish, panicky or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behavior in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and storms across the continent and around the world, have demonstrated this.”